Ask the Author: Joan F. Smith
What would you like readers to know about you?
I’m one of you! I’ve been a voracious reader for pretty much as long as I can remember. I love how books shape our worldview.
What is your book about for those who haven’t read it?
In The Half-Orphan’s Handbook, sixteen-year-old Lila Cunningham creates a series of rules to help prevent her from feeling the kind of pain she felt after she loses her father to suicide. When her mother sends her to a Maine grief camp, Lila must confront the unanswered questions behind her father’s death head-on while forging new friendships and falling in love with someone who might not be who he says he is.
What has been your inspiration for writing it?
Unfortunately, real life. I learned my father was suicidal and addicted to gambling when I was a teenager, and lost him to it soon after that. This information was so incongruous to how he presented himself to the world—seemingly happy, enthusiastic, outgoing, and funny. His experience with mental illness was invisible in so many ways, as opposed to a number of other people in my life. I’m passionate about reducing stigma of mental illness and leveraging access to mental help. I carried the character of Lila with me for a few years until I figured out where to “set” her, which is at a camp inspired by one formerly created for the children of 9/11 victims.
What was your favorite scene or part of your book to write?
There’s a scene in the book set in the camp’s gymnasium that was so thrilling to write. It’s pulled from experiences I had in my teen years, and anyone who was there with me will recognize it immediately! That’s probably tied with one from the camp director’s office.
What books or authors inspired you to become a writer?
I can’t remember not writing. For a long time, way after having a computer was the norm, we couldn’t afford one. My mother bought me a decades-old word processor at a yard sale until we could afford the real thing when I was in middle school. I wrote everywhere: notebooks, journals, diaries, napkins. I wrote poetry, stories, nonfiction personal essays. I was a dancer and now I teach dance, and storytelling is a deeply rooted part of dancing, so it’s always just been a part of me. I feel very fortunate my childhood was full of books. As a kid, I read everything across age genres from Judy Blume to Lois Lowry to Jhumpa Lahiri to Jodi Picoult, and I was the target age for the “rise of YA” in the early 2000s. I was (am) never between books, and I continue to be inspired by my fellow writers today.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who want to write a book?
Read as much as you can. Read authors whose identities you share, and read authors whose identities you do not share. I tend to think successful writing is half storytelling and half writing style/technique. Typically, I find one comes more naturally than the other, so put energy toward working on both.
On all socials (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok), I’m @jf_smit